Local food producers and supporters pushed to strengthen Wisconsin's fish industry at the first Eat Wisconsin Fish Summit at the Mead Public Library in Sheboygan on Wednesday. Attendees heard from aquaculture and fishing professionals about the importance of buying local fish to support the local economy.
According to the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institution, a 2011 study reported that the U.S. imports 90 percent of the seafood that it consumes. The institution sponsored the event to educate attendees on buying local fish and to support the Wisconsin seafood industry.
"Our Wisconsin commercial fisherman are employing people to go out and catch the fish and process the fish. There's an opportunity to keep more of that fish here in Wisconsin and perhaps pay (fishermen) a higher price because it is a quality local product," said Kathy Kline, educational specialist at the UW Sea Grant Institute. "If you're eating fish from the Great Lakes, you care about the Great Lakes."
Kline said the summit will spark an important conversation about buying locally harvested fish.
"I think we should be educating consumers that, if they know where to buy this stuff, buy local fish. Whether it is locally farmed fish, or locally produced Great Lakes fish, it is here," said Ron Kinnunen, extension educator at the Michigan Sea Grant. "People want to know where their food source comes from."
Kinnunen said that fish farming and harvesting families rely on income from locally purchased fish. Some Michigan fishermen even own restaurants that serve the fish that they catch. Michigan hosted a similar local fish summit last year.
The event hosted speakers and panelists from local organizations such as the UW Sea Grant Institute, Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Sea Grant and the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences.
Due to commercial fishing challenges such as water contaminants, limited species and seasonality, each speaker mentioned aquaculture, or fish farming, as a promising market. According to the UW Sea Grant institute, about half of the world's seafood is farm raised.
Aquaponics, a type of farming that involves the symbiotic growth of fish with plants, is a fast growing method here in Wisconsin.
"It is an interesting business model," Kline said. "We are hoping that aquaponics, and recirculating systems especially, could be a really great business for Wisconsin."
However, commercial fishing remains a tradition that Wisconsin refuses to change.
"Great Lakes fish are the last wild protein source that we are using in our diet. We certainly want to keep commercial fishing alive... its a part of our history," Kline said.
Among the roughly 100 local food enthusiasts at the summit, Jennifer Arth, assistant buyer for Milwaukee-based Empire Fish Company, attended for both professional and work interest.
As a millenial who believes in organic, local food, she pursued a career in the fish industry. As an employee of a local fish distributor, she is fighting to bring local fish into grocery stores in Wisconsin.
"People are looking for local fish. Today I was hoping that I would meet some more sources for local fish," she said. "It will bring more people into the store."
The Eat Wisconsin Fish Summit is followed by the 10th annual Wisconsin Local Food Summit, which will be held today and Friday in Sheboygan. The event promotes local farms and food businesses.
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